News Clippings: Fodder for Story Ideas

August 27, 2009

Responding to a question from one of the blog readers, who wondered about the newspaper clippings he noticed on the story structuring board photo in this article: Yes, those clippings are related to the current story  development. Here’s a close-up of what he saw in that photo:news-clippings

The four or five news clips presently pushpinned along the fringe of the corkboard are…

Just the tip of the iceberg!

Over the past 15 years, I’ve developed a fairly substantial collection of news clippings, which I started on the advice of one of my USC screenwriting college professors, Paul Lucey, author of Story Sense.

The general idea is to capture and catalog things you read in the news that, for whatever reason, capture your creative fancy in case it might help when brainstorming story concepts or solutions to story problems. How so? For example, the clipping might:

  • Become the real-life event around which you create a fictional character affected by that event
  • Be so bizarre as to not be directly useful itself, and yet might inspire the “what if” creative juices
  • Be the actual basis for a story, especially if clipping is about a major event (a political scandal, a prison riot, a terrorist attack, etc.)
  • Help you enrich the dialogue based on a quote from the news article

About the clippings now on my corkboard:

These are articles I pulled from my files or from recent news stories that I thought might be useful to keep handy as I’m working on this in-progress screenplay. For example

  • One is a recent LA Times article about the role that Brazil had in supporting President Nixon’s interest in overthrowing the Chilean government’s leadership.
    Why I clipped it: Since one of our story threads involves the US government and its interests in preventing the use of the Caribbean as a transshipment station for South American drug smugglers, I saw some real-world similarities in this article that could help me construct a credible US involvement story thread.
  • Another clipping is from a circa 1990 Reader’s Digest article about Mary Thompson, a mother and a volunteer anti-gang activist in the community who, as the police eventually learned, was in reality the gang leader, neck-deep in gang activity herself, and ultimately convicted as an accomplice to murder — a hit that she had ordered.
    Why I clipped it: What impressed me about the article is how she had masked her evil activities from the community for years by coming across as simply a loving mom and community organizer. I’m not likely to model any character after her directly, but the article is more a reminder that I can avoid creating stereotypical criminals types by using the wilds of my imagination.
  • In another clipping on the board from last Sunday’s LA Times, I was only interested in a single sentence that caught my eye. The article was about a possible change in the election laws being considered by the Supreme Court right now that would remove corporate spending limits in campaign funding. A Washington lawyer who is opposed to change says that this could “… take us back to the era when people referred to the senator from Standard Oil,” implying that elected officials could become heavily swayed by a single corporation that is a particularly generous campaign sponsor.
    Why I clipped it: Since I’m creating a couple of politically corrupt parliamentarians for this story, and we may even have a parliamentary session scene or two, I love the idea of creating a line similar to this as a way to have one politician imply the dishonesty of another politician in the room without outwardly accusing him.

Getting’ digi- with it…

Of course these days, most of my news article “clippings” are digital — copied from an online article and pasted into a Microsoft OneNote notebook. The newspaper clipping file folders in my filing cabinet are still useful to me, but it’s tons easier to locate a collected article using a computer search.



Step Outline Moves to Corkboard

August 23, 2009

As I described in yesterday’s entry, my first task today was to mount onto my corkboard the first act steps, each on its own card, as you see here:Stepping-Out-the-Steps-on-Corkboard

I’ve represented the timeline of the story’s first act horizontally, from left to right, just as it was in the story thread deconstruction phase. The reason I pushed the step cards to the top of the board is to make room for the story thread cards, which I will place below each step card later on.

I know it’s hard to tell in a small picture, so, in case you were wondering…

What is on each step card?

Each card has essentially three parts.

  • The card number and title, describing in a short phrase either where the step occurs (“Return to the Bat Cave”) or an overarching description of what happens (“Dynamic Duo Searches for Clues”). The card number indicates in what order that step occurs along the story timeline.
  • The step analysis — that gray-shaded area below the step title — is a dramaturgical analysis of the step, describing why this step is important and why it should happen at this point in the story.
  • The step description — the main area with no shading — is for the primary story elements or “beats” that collectively walk us through what happens in this step. It’s a highlight — just the key beats in the step — lacking the details that you will eventually see in a story’s final screenplay form.

Can you show an example?

Sure, why not? I won’t be giving away too much if I show you something from early in the first act. The card below represents Act I’s second step in the step outline. It should help clarify the value of the analysis shown in the gray-shaded area and explain by example what I mean by story beats:


If it’s too hard to read at this size, you can download that step as a PDF file here.

Build your own story structuring board? Sure!

August 4, 2009

I’ve had a couple of writers who, intrigued by the deconstruction process I’ve employed with this screenplay, ask me about the board itself – where did I get it? How much did it cost? So, here’s the scoop.

First, about the board itself . . .

You can read more about why I built rather than bought this story structuring board in the post “Fertile ground for story structure visualization.” If your situation and reasons are similar to mine and you want therefore to build a board to do your own story structuring, here’s how. 

I threw this together in my workshop, spending less than $20 in supplies and less than five hours of labor.  You can make it for even less time and cost if you skip the frame. It may not hold up beyond the one-time use though, so build the frame if you plan to use it more than once. Here’s what the finished board looks like:

 4x8 Board

The mock corkboard material:

A sheet of real cork big enough to fit my plans would have been a bit costly.  Instead, I chose a 4’ x 8’ slab of half-inch sound dampening insulation sheet material, which I picked up at my local home center for just $11.  This spongy material is normally used in wall or floor construction, attached behind the outer wall board (or under the flooring) to reduce sounds from passing through from adjacent rooms. But it has worked beautifully as a cheap alternative to cork, holding pushpins as firmly as cork, and is just as easy to pull the pins back out of.

Building the frame:

The wood frame is simple 1” x 3” pine, sometimes called furring strips. Cheap and sturdy stuff. 🙂 In fact, the better-grade pine boards in stock at my local home store were all warped or twisted, so I ended up buying the $.99 1 x 3 furring strips, which, strangely, were more “true” than the more expensive pine stock.  So, I’ll get no awards for the design, but it was delightfully cheap. You could get a higher grade of pine for about four times as much – or spend considerably more for a hardwood material if you want to get real fancy. But the cheapest stuff in stock has worked just fine for my purposes.

  1. Saw the stiles (the upright frame pieces) to 4 feet (since the board you’re framing is 4’ by 8’). If you want to get a bit fancier with the corners I like did (truly unnecessary), you can make your stiles a bit longer so it matches the total top-to-bottom length of your finished bulletin board.  It takes a bit more math than I care to go into here, especially since it’s an optional thing.
  2. Your rails should be 8 feet in length already, so there’s nothing to cut there.
  3. Ideally, create a “lip” by routing out about a half-inch by half-inch channel in all four rail pieces, which will keep the bulletin board material penned in against the wall. If you don’t have a router or table saw, you can skip this step by using my workaround, described below.
  4. Sand the four frame pieces. I suppose you could skip this step if your frame pieces are smooth enough. With the cheaper grade lumber, it probably isn’t.


I purposely chose not to join the frame pieces to each other, as one normally would in traditional joinery, because I had never worked with this mock “corkboard” material, and  I wanted to be able to easily replace it in case it turned out to lack durability (Side note: I’ve been using it heavily for several months now, and it’s going strong).  However, if you’re into woodworking and are familiar with joinery techniques, and want to build this in a more conventional fashion, knock yourself out. As for the rest of us…

  1. Decide how high you want to mount the board on the wall. Your primary concern is to not mounted so high that you can’t easily post things on it. For me, that meant mounting it so the bottom of the finished board was about knee-high.
  2. Mark that bottom edge position with a piece of masking tape near each end of where you plan to mount the board.
  3. Screw this bottom rail piece to the wall, making sure that you are screwing into one of the wall studs.
  4. Carefully rest the 4 x 8 mock corkboard sheet on top of this bottom rail. The material is fairly lightweight, but it’s hard to work with by yourself because of the size, so get the help of a friend, who can also hold it up against the wall while you do the next step.
  5. Hold one of your stiles (the upright) up against the left side of the cork board, and then screw it into the wall. Repeat the process for the right side stile, and then the top rail.
  6. Unaided, the mock corkboard will likely stay in place while you’re surrounding it with the rails and stiles, even if you had routed in a “lip” (not unlike the one you would have a picture frame) on the frame pieces. If you did build that lip, your story structuring board is done. If you didn’t have the tools to build the lip, you can also secure the corkboard by attaching a thinner material, such as a half-inch by 2-inch strip of wood, to your frame pieces so that it overlaps the cork board, pinning it in against the wall.

The nice thing about this design is that, if you ever want to move the board to a new location, simply unscrew the frame pieces, carry everything individually, and reassemble it. And, as cheap as the mock cork material was, if it starts to wear out, just toss it, and replace it with another by unscrewing the top rail and one of the side pieces, sliding in the new corkboard, and screwing the two pieces back on.

As for my angled frame corners: an interesting story . . . 

To keep the project cheap, I bought a total of three of those 1″ x 3″ furring strips. Which, if you think about it, doesn’t really make it possible to surround a 4′ x 8′ sheet with standard framing, because the total width and height won’t be 4′ x 8′ but rather 4′ x 8′ PLUS the width of the frame pieces. So, the only attractive solution was to angle the edges to mask that “design flaw” by making the 45-degree corners, like so: 

Board corner detail

I’m sure there’s some logical, mathematical way to calculate the way to get the side stiles just right so the horizontal and vertical frame pieces match up seamlessly, but I didn’t know of any mathematical method. So, I just carefully guessed, eyeballing it. Happily, it worked.